Zurich on the Down Low

Röbi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag as young men. | WOLFE RELEASING

Röbi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag as young men. | WOLFE RELEASING

BY GARY M. KRAMER | “The Circle,” which is Switzerland’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, provides a fascinating glimpse into gay life in 1950s Zurich. Directed and co-written by Stefan Haupt, the film alternates between dramatic episodes and documentary interviews. The hybrid approach effectively chronicles the lives of men involved in a secret homophile society called “The Circle,” in the process resurrecting images of gay life from nearly 60 years ago.

In the film, the organization, founded in 1942 by the actor Karl Maier, is being led by Rolf (Stefan Witschi). The 2,000 international members receive the title publication and are invited to balls where transvestite singers like Röbi Rapp (Sven Schelker) perform. The film tells the story of Ernst Ostertag (Matthias Hungerbühler), a schoolteacher, joining the Circle and falling in love with Röbi.

Interspersed between these scenes is footage of the real-life Röbi and Ernst, an elderly couple who are still together in Zurich. The documentary scenes recount how the couple met and negotiated their relationship during a repressive era. Their romance blossomed during the time of Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexuality in Germany. While gay sex wasn’t illegal in Switzerland, being open was not entirely safe either. As the film shows, police raids at clubs and arrests were not uncommon.

Swiss film mixes drama and documentary to illuminate discreet postwar gay life

“The Circle” makes salient points about the dangers of being out during that era, but also emphasizes gay men’s need to be true to their natures, assert their identities, and “cultivate friendship and love in freedom.” That Ernst decides to join the Circle before he is officially confirmed as a teacher at his school (which ensures him job security) is a risk he feels is worth taking.

His relationship with Röbi is a bit trickier. While the men first meet when Ernst is transfixed by Röbi’s performance in drag, he doesn’t understand that the singer is a man. The men don’t truly connect until Ernst visits Röbi, a hair stylist, at his work. The couple soon start spending their nights together.

Matthias Hungerbühle as Ernst and Sven Schelker as Röbi in “The Circle." | WOLFE RELEASING

Matthias Hungerbühle as Ernst and Sven Schelker as Röbi in “The Circle.” | WOLFE RELEASING

But their relationship was not without its hiccups early on. While Röbi is open to his mother, Erika (Marianne Sägebrecht), Ernst is closeted to his parents. In the interviews, the real-life Röbi and Ernst discuss how long it took for Ernst to introduce Röbi to his parents, a scene recreated in the film. Ernst’s sister is also interviewed in the documentary portion, and she explains how the relationship between the men was understood if not discussed. She discloses that her brother fabricated stories about women he was dating to maintain a double life and didn’t come out until he was 70.

The film includes a subplot about gay murders taking place in Zurich at the time that put pressure on Rolf and his fellow members of the Circle. Rather than protest ill treatment in the streets, the group decides to maintain the sanctity of the organization. A sequence showing the murderer cast as a victim in court while the gay men murdered were portrayed as criminals underscores the harshness of the LGBT community’s second-class citizenship even in a country with relatively liberal attitudes at the time.

A scene where Ernst and Felix (Anatole Taubman) smuggle the banned Circle magazine into Germany captures the tension of a scramble across the border, but underplays a romantic dalliance the two friends share. And a storyline about Ernst’s boss, Mr. Sieber (Peter Jecklin), who has secret sexual trysts in toilets with rent boys, comments on the repressive tenor of the times but otherwise is lacking in dramatic impact. Haupt may have tried to shoehorn too many plotlines into 102 minutes.

The filmmaker does best when presenting factual material, such as how the magazine could publish artistic nudes but photographs could not feature naked genitals. Pictures from the era, such as the real-life Röbi in costume, are also compelling, especially in contrast to the handsomely mounted “re-creation” scenes.

Despite flaws, “The Circle” is an important film and it provides a critical history lesson. Nuanced appreciation for the varying degrees of acceptance and sexual expression are represented, even if some of the characters are too broadly portrayed. Ernst and Röbi emerge as sympathetic in both the dramatic and documentary segments, and a closing note about a recent barrier the couple surmounted allows the film to come a gratifying full “Circle.”

THE CIRCLE | Directed by Stefan Haupt | Wolfe Releasing| In German, Swiss German, and French with English subtitles | Opens Nov. 21 | Quad Cinema, 24 W. 13th St. | quadcinema.com